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Sponsor: Airport bill still alive

By Rick Rothacker
rrothacker@charlotteobserver.com

RALEIGH As the days tick down on this year’s session of the N.C. General Assembly, time is running out for backers of a bill to transfer control of Charlotte’s airport to a new, state-created authority.

Once, the controversial bill seemed to be on a fast track through the legislature.

Now, it remains grounded in the House Finance Committee – with next week’s legislative agenda mostly focused on passing a new state budget and tax reform. House Speaker Thom Tillis said Thursday that he would like to wrap up this year’s session by July 4.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a main sponsor of the bill to remove the airport from city control, said the measure is still alive.

“People should not confuse patience with resignation, or willingness to negotiate with surrender,” said Brawley, a Matthews Republican. He has said he is seeking a compromise on potential changes to the bill, but on Thursday he declined to comment on negotiations.

But Brawley did cite testimony on Wednesday by the U.S. General Accountability Office as a reason why an authority is needed to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The GAO said the airport’s status as a major airline hub is not guaranteed in the proposed American Airlines-US Airways merger, saying changing business conditions could compel the combined air carrier to shift hub operations from Charlotte to Miami and other airports.

“Our hub long term is at risk, and we could lose it,” Brawley said. “We are not guaranteed that hub in the merger, and we are not guaranteed to keep the hub after the merger because we don’t have a natural advantage that compels a hub to be located here.”

An authority is the “best answer” to that problem, he said.

“They would have as their sole goal the airport,” Brawley said. “The City of Charlotte has a lot of other things they’re trying to accomplish other than run an effective airport.”

When asked about Brawley’s comments that Charlotte could lose flights to Miami after the US Airways-American Airlines merger is completed, City Manager Ron Carlee said the best way to ensure the airport’s success is to keep with its current city control.

“What most helps Charlotte compete is maintaining the lowest cost, which is what has been achieved with the airport as a city department,” Carlee said in an email. “Its potential performance under a new authority is merely speculative and would shift the airport’s focus from operations to creating all new systems and structures under the auspices of multiple political appointees.”

Charlotte City Council member David Howard, a Democrat, said Brawley’s argument that an authority could keep the hub at Charlotte Douglas “makes no sense.” Howard said he isn’t aware of a large airport run by an authority that has costs as low as Charlotte’s.

Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said Wednesday the airline remained committed to maintaining the nine hubs the merged company would have.

Supporters of a new authority have said the airport must be “depoliticized” and that the city is driving up costs for US Airways. Aviation Director Jerry Orr, a city employee who has run the airport since 1989, supports creating an independent authority.

The city, however, strongly opposes the current bill. Carlee has said it could throw the airport into “chaos.”

The bill under consideration by the House would create an 11-member authority with seven appointments made by the surrounding counties and the General Assembly. If approved by both chambers, the bill does not need the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte’s former mayor, because it’s a so-called local bill.

Observer reporter Steve Harrison contributed

Rothacker: 704 358-5170
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